by Paul George
Outside of Washington policy wonks, who had ever heard of Osama bin Laden before the cruise missile attack? It seems pretty clear that bin Laden is up to no good out there in the Afghan desert. But hold on just a minute. In his formal address about the attacks, Clinton accused bin Laden of being involved in everything from the World Trade Center bombing (never mind that prior to this we had been told that everyone involved in that heinous deed had been rounded up and jailed) to a plot against the Pope. The Pope! I'm waiting for the announcement that bin Laden is also the Grinch who stole Christmas.
If this guy really is responsible for the amazing laundry list of crimes, why did it take until the very week that the president was in the deepest hot water of his career for us to hear about him? In just a couple of days, bin Laden went from a nobody to somebody who is so insidious, such a danger to the most powerful nation on the planet, that people stand willing to curtail their civil liberties in the war against him. Though I've seen it all before, I am still just a bit awed by how rapidly a good marketing campaign can get the American people to look the other way.
Anybody remember Ronald Reagan's "Libyan hit squads"? Recall that Reagan had "compelling evidence" that squads of Libyan terrorists were making their way to our hallowed soil to wreak havoc. That one had us in a frenzy for about a month until the crazed Libyans failed to show up. Of course, back in Reagan's day things were different. Osama bin Laden was a freedom fighter then, casting the communist demons out of Afghanistan. The camps which the U.S. just spent $50 million to blow up were being built with CIA assistance and U.S. taxpayer dollars back in those days. The blueprints are likely still in Langley, no doubt having proved to be a great aid in targeting the cruise missiles.
Who Owns That Evil Factory?
On the day of the missile launches, administration mouthpieces were explaining that the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan was targeted because it was at least partially owned by bin Laden and was manufacturing precursors for VX nerve gas. Less than a week later, after much hemming and hawing, feet-shuffling and deer-in-the-headlight stares, administration sources were admitting that the connection to bin Laden was "fuzzy." Fuzzy! That's the official word.
But hold on. According to a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, it's still OK that the U.S. attacked the factory because, and pay close attention here, "We knew there were fuzzy ties between him and the plant, but strong ties between him and Sudan and strong ties between the plant and Sudan and strong ties between the plant and Iraq." No wonder the official spoke anonymously. It sounds like the administration is playing a game of six degrees of separation; if you can be linked to Iraq with fewer than six intervening connections, you're a target.
You Just Knew Iraq Was Involved, Didn't You?
It was surprising that it actually took several days for Iraq--enemy number one for so many years now--to be dragged into this whole mess. Iraq had seemingly dropped off Clinton's list of international evildoers. Even Saddam Hussein's latest refusal to admit weapons inspectors elicited little response from Washington. But after fumbling about searching for the appropriate excuse as to why the U.S. bombed a medicine factory, the administration finally hit on a formula that will probably fly with the public. I can picture some White House adviser, during an all-night strategy session, jumping suddenly to his feet, slapping his forehead and proclaiming, "Of course, why didn't we think of that before?" It is reminiscent of how George Bush trotted out several "reasons" why the U.S. should go to war back in 1990-up to the absurd "It's about jobs" line--before discovering that the hint of Iraqi nukes was enough to scare people into line.
In reality, there is a connection to Iraq, but not the kind the administration is rolling out. In early briefings, Pentagon planners explained that their information indicated that the portion of the factory which was used for making veterinary medicines was the part that had been used to manufacture the VX precursors. Therefore, the veterinary section was particularly targeted. Observers in Sudan say that indeed that portion of the plant suffered the most extensive damage.
Why is that significant, and how does Iraq come into the picture? At the time of the attack, the veterinary department was manufacturing veterinary medicines for Iraq under a contract with the United Nations' oil-for-food program for Iraq. In particular, the factory was making deworming medicine for Iraq's livestock, which have been hit with an epidemic of Old World screwworm, a parasite devastating Iraq's cattle and other herds. (Incidentally, there have been two other outbreaks of screwworm in the Middle East--in Iran and Libya. But let's not head down that road for now.)
A Scoop of Dirt and Malaria
While the administration continues trying to get its story straight about who owned what, it continues to rely on its mysterious scoop of dirt as justification for denying Sudan half the medicine it so desperately needs. Here's another "trust me" case. After days of insisting that the chemical found in the soil had no other use than to make VX precursor, it turns out that, oh, well maybe there are some other uses, but not many. Then we find out that the suspect substance is chemically very similar to a common agricultural pesticide readily available and in use in Africa. It would be very easy to confuse the two in laboratory tests. Of course, that didn't happen. "Trust us."
In the meantime, of course, untold numbers of innocent Sudanese will suffer and die as a result of losing access to anti-malarial and other medicines. Disease is a big killer in poverty-stricken countries like Sudan, one of Africa's poorest. The true death toll of the Shifa factory bombing will likely never make it into the pages of your local newspaper. The deaths will come months after the bombing and will involve "unpeople," as one British columnist put it this past week, people who simply do not exist when it comes to great issues of state and international relations.
Coca Cola Versus International Terrorism
Back in 1996, when the U.S. slapped economic sanctions on Sudan for its alleged sponsorship of terrorism, one exception was made: gum arabic. This little known substance derived from Acacia trees is a critical ingredient in consumer products from soft drinks to candy bars and cosmetics to the ink in our daily newspapers. The CEOs of the huge corporations which manufacture these products lobbied heavily for the gum arabic exception to the Sudan trade sanctions. It seems that Sudan is the source of some 80% to 90% of the world's gum arabic supply. Ban all trade with Sudan and your corner grocery would be out of Coca Cola within a week. The exception was granted.
Now comes the hard part. Although Osama bin Laden's ties to the pharmaceutical factory were "fuzzy," it appears his ties to the Sudanese gum arabic industry may be more substantial. That isn't surprising really. Gum arabic represents just about the only profitable enterprise in Sudan. You might expect a successful millionaire to invest in successful enterprises.
So, a political battle of some proportion may be shaping up. There will be those who will want to revisit the question of the gum arabic exception. Certainly we can't be making exceptions that would benefit an international threat like bin Laden. Drink a Coke, support international terrorism? The big corporations will be desperate to save the exception. What we want to listen for will be those politicians who think it is perfectly acceptable that 90,000 Iraqis die every year as a result of the sanctions on that country. Where will they stand on the Coke versus terrorism issue? Maybe bin Laden will lose his number one ranking before the debate can heat up, replaced by another enemy-of-the week who will again distract the ever-distracted public again.
The week of August 17, 1998, was a strange one indeed. Certainly the people of Sudan and Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East won't be forgetting it for a long time. But Clinton told the American people that he had "misled" them and that he had bombed targets in two sovereign countries, including a critically-needed pharmaceutical factory, "to advance peace, democracy and basic human values." And he did it almost in the same breath. George Orwell couldn't have done better.
Paul George is director of the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center.
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